“I began focusing my research program on the psychology of beauty. So this is a major theme in my life. I’m interested in every kind of beauty. From my childhood, I loved beauty and nature, but also I became very interested in art at a young age, wanted to be an artist also. And so I’ve had many artistic beauty experiences all over the world, mostly museums.
“But then when analyzing it, I’m a religious person. I’m a member of the Baha’I faith, and the Baha’I writings mention beauty thousands of times. And so I thought I should study moral beauty. Like when you say, oh, that’s a beautiful thing that person did. I’ve done research in all of those three areas. Our appreciation of natural beauty, appreciation of artistic beauty, and appreciation of moral beauty.
“Well, right now I’m doing a research project with a man in Russia, a researcher in Russia, at the University of Novosibirsk, and he and I are looking at the difference between moral beauty and inner beauty, because sometimes in my papers, I would call them the same thing. Moral beauty is your virtues. A person oriented towards justice, a loving person, a person with hope, all of these things, all the basic virtues are moral beauty.”
“But now we’re finding some interesting things. People look at inner beauty a little differently. They look at moral beauty more like it’s the rules. Inner beauty is maybe really what I’m more interested in. And it’s our basic virtues, right? Being a loving person, a merciful person, a fair person.
“Well, my two latest papers are published in the Journal of Ecopsychology. And one of the most interesting things about moral beauty is you can think when you see someone do a beautiful thing and your heart is pulled toward them, it elevates you. You think, either consciously or unconsciously, I want to be a good person like that. And then you’re actually more likely to go out and help people. And that emotion is called elevation.
“So in the research literature, it specifically happens when you see moral beauty. Well, you have to feel it in your heart. You can’t just see it with your eyes, right? But if you’re thinking, oh, that person’s so grateful even though their life is miserable, you think, I want to be like that? I want to be grateful even when my life is miserable. And this is that feeling of elevation.
“Well, all the research so far has only found it for moral beauty. But in the study I published in Ecopsychology, I found that experiences of beauty in nature also cause elevation. So this is the first time anyone’s published something about that. Because by definition, elevation is caused by moral beauty. We can be looking at a beautiful mountain, a beautiful tree, a beautiful little creature, and this will elevate us and we’ll feel, I need to be a better person.”
“I have a very strong relationship with nature. My father loved nature. So from the time I was a toddler, as soon as I could walk, he was taking me out to nature. We would go mostly to the mountains and to forests, but also sometimes to deserts and the ocean. And he was an accomplished wildlife photographer, amateur, but he even made movies using complex equipment. So I had a lot of role modeling to love nature.
“I’m in the Pacific Northwest in America, so there are some very nice forests. And so they bring me a lot of comfort, a lot of happiness. I was born in the central part of Washington state in the Pacific Northwest in the USA, way back in 1956. So my city friends call me a villager because I came from a small town.
“I had an older brother, ten years older, and he would talk about his psychology classes and bring home his psychology textbooks. And that just fascinated me. I was very interested in that. And so probably from the age of 13, I was very interested in pursuing becoming a psychologist.
“I’m very science oriented. So my bachelor’s degree was in biological psychology. Very interested in what’s going on in the brain. But especially back then, there were no jobs for that kind of psychologist. And I had a wife and children, so I needed to do something practical, so I thought I could become a school psychologist”.
“I got a master’s degree in school psychology, and I was very fortunate to get a job working for a Native American tribe in their private schools. For several years, I worked with indigenous people as their counselor, and that was a very good learning experience for me.
“When I was asked to teach a class at a college, I was very interested in moral psychology, what makes a person a good person? And there was a professor at Harvard that was famous for that, and I applied to work with him, and I was accepted. So mainly I’ve been a teacher.
“I think one of the very valuable experiences for me working in the Native schools was it’s a good experience to be a minority. So in America, white people are the majority. But when I work at the school, I was the minority. Sometimes I’d be the only white person in a room. And this was very good, very good learning for me. Social learning, moral learning.
“And then the Native students didn’t trust me because I was outside their culture. So I started playing basketball with them, not as a strategy, just because I was bored. They weren’t coming to my office. But once I played basketball, after a few weeks, then so many of them would come to my office for counseling. It was overwhelming. So it was an interesting lesson in how to build trust.”
Ph: Courtesy Rhett Diessner